May 9, 2018

Bigg's Orcas Chase Steller Sea Lions at East Point (T36A's)

Bigg's Orcas

[Thursday, 5/3/18 - M/V Sea Lion - 12:00 - Naturalist Erick]


May is here and things are beginning to feel more and more like summer. More staff are arriving back and even Captain Pete has returned from his journeys around the world. Captain Pete tagged along with us on this trip as Captain Mike and I took folks out on another sunny day in the islands. We started by heading north and looking in the places where there is food for the whale species and types that we usually see during springtime. We made our first stop in between Jones Island and Spieden Island where there was a group of Harbor Porpoises fishing in the ripping waters that normally form in this island rich area. We watched this group hunt for a little bit but soon their shiny, dark fins moved on into the distance. These small porpoises are pretty low on the food chain so they like to keep their distance from anything that looks at them too long. And to be honest that is a great survival strategy. We continued just a bit further north until we reached Green Point. Here we saw one of the colonies of Steller Sea Lions that spend about half of the year here. These magnificent beasts were both swimming in the water around the point and some were sunning themselves on the rocks. Each one is about the mass of a Fiat 500 and twice as long sometimes. They are my favorite to watch because it always seems like they have something to growl about usually just when one of them wants to climb on shore. After a few swam right by the boat and we saw two argue about who got to lie where we continued on north towards Boundary Pass. As we went we encountered a bunch of Harbor Seals tanning on White Rock in between Waldron and Johns Islands. These little rock sausages are about a third the size of the massive Steller Sea Lions - the largest of the eared seals - and also can’t easily move on land. This is due to the major physical difference between ‘true seals’ and ‘eared seals’. True Seals’ (Phocids’) hind flippers are fused to their spine and cannot be rotated to the side to walk on while eared seals (otariids) can do this. So this sleepy group that we passed simply looked back at us and quickly fell back asleep in the warm sunlight. We continued northwest towards more of the Outer Islands and East Point. Just off of the east point buoy we saw some blows! It was a family group of Bigg’s (Transient) Orcas. This ecotype of orcas/killer whales are the ones that prey on marine mammals so we see them often any time of year because there are seals here year round. As we watched this family they cruised around the huge line of eddies and upwelling created by this dynamic current area we could see that this family was a medium sized one with a matriarch and a few younger ones. In all ecotypes of orcas the group is led by an older female who is the matriarch and usually it is her offspring traveling with her. This group was hanging around here probably to try and catch an unsuspecting seal or sea lion. Not too far away from where we first spotted them there is a large rocky islet that has a seal and a sea lion colony on it and both species like to hunt in the swirling waters around the rock. As we watched, the orca pod swam stealthily towards them and eventually startled a whole raft of sea lions in the water. The sea lions bolted and the orcas followed suit. It was crazy to watch the hunt occur and watch one predator get hunted by another larger one. They eventually did catch something but it was hard to tell what since most of the killing and eating takes place under water. After a successful hunt the orca pod continued southward complete with some tail flips and chin flops from the youngest members of the family which was amazing to watch. We did have to head back after watching them for a little bit more, but it was one of the coolest hunts that I have seen in a while. Till next time folks!


Naturalist Erick

San Juan Safaris